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PANORAMA: 1996

Academic Superhighway Rings London
by Adrian J. Morant
Specialist Writer on Telecommunications

United Kingdom academia is setting the pace across the world in the use of the information superhighway. Twenty-four core university sites in London have been linked by optical fibre creating one of the largest and most significant networks for education and research in Europe. In addition, it will link into, and form an extension to, the existing national SuperJANET academic network which spans the country.

The global hype about the Internet may give the impression that, by logging onto the World Wide Web, one is at the leading edge of technology. This is not true. Anyone who regularly uses the Web knows the frustration suffered when a "download" of a single screen of graphics information takes tens of seconds, or even minutes, when one is connected via the telephone network or even basic rate ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network).

On the other hand, optical fibre networks support video, audio and data, and also the latest multimedia applications. Images and data can be transferred at a key stroke from site to site. Even more important, in engineering and scientific terms, is the fact that simulations, for example, may be carried out on a supercomputer on one site with visualisation output being transmitted to another. This is a solution to one of the problems frequently encountered with much dynamic work where the vast amount of data generated by an application can only be absorbed by the user if it is presented as an image - often with colour and animation. This remote visualisation would not be possible without a fibre network.

Janet, the Joint Academic Network, has a fifteen-year history in providing data communications for the UK academic community and was accessed at 9.6kbit/s or even lower. This was complemented in due course by the original SuperJANET which provided broadband connections for some 60 institutions, representing about half the recently expanded higher education community. It was based on British Telecom's Switched Multi-megabit Data Service (SMDS). It spans the country, with the majority of sites having l0Mbit/s access with others being at l6Mbit/s or 4Mbit/s. Within the next two years SuperJANET will have been upgraded almost entirely to 155Mbit/s ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode).

Major Step
However, a major step forward has recently been taken with the creation of the London Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) which enables the capital's higher education institutions to access each other's supercomputers and share information on each other's networks and databases, as well as accessing SuperJANET.

This is a massive five year project - valued at 6 million with an initial commitment of 4 million - which the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) is funding for UKERNA (The UK Education and Research Networking Association).

It consists of a 155Mbit/s SDH (Synchronous Digital Hierarchy) ring linking six major sites - University College London (UCL), Imperial College, University of London Computer Centre (ULCC), Southbank University, University of Greenwich and the ULCC Telehouse site - with 34Mbit/s tails off to the remaining sites around greater London.

SDH has become the standard transport as it can be broken down readily into tributaries as small as 2Mbit/s. Thus users can "tap-off" whatever capacity they need.

Dedicated Network
The network has been provided by Integrated Communications Network (ICN), the business telecommunications service operated by the London Interconnect Group (LIC) which is an alliance of London's six leading cable operators. ICN, which already has over 100 customers since it was set up over a year ago, installed the London MAN as a totally private and dedicated network which has the scope to operate at a far higher data rate (2.4Gbit/s) as and when demand rises.

Dr. David Hartley, chief executive of UKERNA, said that they see ICN "as a partner able to keep pace with our needs for rapid expansion and able to meet the demand to upgrade the network from 155Mbit/s to 622Mbit/s as demanded by an increasing number of university sites and applications." He added that he sees the network as a true educational Superhighway in that it will add high-performance and multi-service facilities to the versatility, pervasiveness and wide area coverage already made available by the Internet.

While this is an academic network, connections can be made to industrial partners where required for research collaboration. Similarly, there are peering arrangements with other service providers. In view of the international nature of research, talks are underway with regard to making broadband academic connections between the UK and continental Europe and the United States.

Virtual Reality
Research, in particular, involves the use of increasingly expensive systems and supercomputers which cannot either be afforded or be fully utilised by a single organisation. Collaboration and resource sharing is therefore of growing importance. However, at the same time as faster and faster computers are required for 3D computer assisted design, simulation and a variety of other applications, communications links with higher performance than those which are widely available today are essential between sites.

One particular bandwidth-hungry application is virtual reality. While this may be seen by many people as tomorrow's technology, a testbed application is being developed that will allow designers in different parts of the UK to work together to create geometric shapes, for example, in car design. The project known as DEVRL (Distributed Extensible Virtual Reality Laboratory) is an example of the convergence of computing and communications.

DEVRL is a collaboration between Lancaster and Nottingham Universities and, in London, between Queen Mary & Westfield and UCL to, establish a distributed virtual reality laboratory, initially exploiting the Internet (in particular SuperJANET), as the communications channel for constructing multi-participant applications.

Virtual reality has the potential to enable a small number of designers to simultaneously inhabit a virtual space in order to create a design. This is particularly valuable with objects created by stylists where aesthetic appearance is the most important characteristic. As Dr Mel Slater of UCL explains, while the existing network which operates at lOMbit/s is adequate for "a few hundred polygons" a network of over ten times the speed will offer major advantages. As, no matter how powerful the computers, communications can constitute a bottleneck; the London MAN has the potential to bring an enormous amount of additional power to bear.

For more information contact:
British Telecom PLC
British Telecom Centre, 81 Newgate Street, London, United Kingdom, EClA 7AJ
Tel: +44 171 356 5000. Fax: +44 171 356 5520

UK Education and Research Association
Atlas Centre, Chilton, Didcot, Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom, OX1 OQS
Tel: +44 1235 822200. Fax: +44 1235 822 399

Integrated Communications Network
76 Hammersmith Road, London, United Kingdom, W14 8UD
Tel: +44 181 723 0000 Fax: +44 181 473 2199

  

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